The Jules César in Arles in the south of France used to be one of those musty, shabbily grand French hotels, chock-full of swirling carpets, brocade curtains and highly varnished Louis Philippe furniture. Last year it was bought and subsumed into the rapidly expanding, 41-strong, Maranatha Group of hotels. And now, just in time for last weekend’s opening of the city’s world famous photography festival, Les Rencontres d’Arles, the Jules César is emerging from a €5.5m facelift, carried out by none other than haute couture superstar and Arles’s most famous son – Christian Lacroix.
I am greeted outside by a smiling youth in a figure-hugging suit who takes the keys to my grubby little car without the slightest hint of disapproval. Inside, the dashingly camp lobby is dominated by a large, black-and-white photograph of the muscled back of a beautiful torero. Arles’s bullfighting culture – with its legacy of vivid colours and its black lace – has clearly been Lacroix’s main source of inspiration.
Florence Barron, the hotel’s manager, tells me that all the other journalists expected for the launch have been marooned in Paris by a train strike – as has Lacroix himself – so we sit down à deux in the dappled shade on the terrace of the hotel’s renowned Lou Marques restaurant. Local establishment figures dine here all year round, moving to the warm, wood-panelled interior for Arles’s cold, mistral-swept winters. Today, Hervé Schiavetti, the recently re-elected communist mayor, known for his lavish cultural spending, is at the next table.
First, I have time to take in the dashingly camp decor of the lobby and the Barron, I realise as we start the tour of the 52-bedroom building, is a swan: her effortlessly elegant exterior belies the inner chaos that surely comes with throwing open the doors of a luxury hotel before it is quite finished. Guests complain of intermittent hot water and internet access, and she is frequently accosted by the painters, plumbers and electricians (all of them, to Lacroix’s credit, local). They are working on the spa, trailing dust over the pale grey carpet of the hotel’s corridors.
I soon get used to the carpet’s trompe-l’œil pattern of stone tiling with its fissure motif (which keeps making me want to bend down and scrub the floor), and although I’m not partial to the recurring wallpaper of magnified 18th-century etchings, I do very much like my room.
One of the cheaper “classic” rooms on the first floor, it is bright and monastic and, after the black-and- yellow stripes of the staircase, I appreciate its sobriety. The building was, after all, a 17th-century Carmelite convent, and Lacroix has conserved the layout of the nuns’ cells. Many of them look on to a somewhat regimented herb garden in the central cloister, the stone walls of which have been rendered in a restful ochre. The colours in my room are predominantly blue – evocative, as Barron explains, of the surrounding Camargue. When night falls, I (being like caviar to mosquitoes) will come to regret the city’s wetland setting, but for the moment I’m relishing the fabled light that so beguiled Van Gogh.
We explore the grander, more flamboyant rooms on the ground floor: Room 207, with its zellige pattern terracotta bathroom and colour scheme of black, scarlet and fuchsia; the poppy reds and Chinese yellows of Room 118 and the celestial blues of the Mother Superior Suite (Room 110), with its four-poster bed and massive marble bathroom. I am less keen on some of the wallcoverings, which feature blown-up works of art and which, Barron proudly tells me, running her hand over the plasticised surface, are made of boat tarpaulin. Nor am I impressed by the lightweight doors, which seem to be covered in trompe-l’œil (again) Formica, but then I reflect that €5.5m is probably not vast budget for a project of this scale.
We head out to the walled garden, where there will soon be what the French now like to call un snacking (a snack bar) beside a pleasant pool, and Barron again tells me about Lacroix’s legendary kindness and integrity. As I listen, I’m filled with a sudden urge to get away. Agreeable as the hotel is, there’s something faintly oppressive about the ubiquity of a single person’s taste. And although I’m as partial as the next woman to fluffy towels, free slippers and complimentary chocolates, I still find, after a while, that the unavoidable homogeneity of a luxury chain always leaves me feeling a little flat. Although Lacroix has made a valiant reach for eccentricity, there’s still a strong whiff of global branding in the air – a feeling borne out the next morning at breakfast by the corner-cutting of inferior coffee and orange juice that is not freshly squeezed.
Leaving the hotel, I cross the busy boulevard and enter the quiet streets of the ancient city proper. The 4th-century poet Ausonius called Arles “the little Rome of Gaul” – presumably because it has it all: Roman baths, an arena, a theatre, a necropolis … I ask a young Arlésienne for the Forum, the main square that rests on a cryptoportico built by Greek masons around 20BC. She offers to take me there and we get chatting as we walk through the narrow streets, pinkish in the evening light, swallows wheeling above our heads. When I tell her why I’m here, she gives a wry smile, “Ah yes. Christian Lacroix, our native son. I keep expecting to wake up and see lanterns with his face on them festooning the streets.”
She leads me to the legendary (albeit unfortunately named) Nord Pinus hotel, which was once frequented by Picasso and Cocteau and which was to Lacroix himself a gateway to worldliness and culture. As my guide suggested, I have a drink in the hotel lobby and it is as she described – beautiful and idiosyncratic. Here, I think with a pang, is some of that unconventional Arlesian charm that has so inspired Lacroix and that now so stubbornly refuses to be packaged and sold.
Lucy Wadham was a guest of the Hôtel Jules César (hotel-julescesar.fr); double rooms cost from €125